Key takeaways from Biden-Zelenskyy meeting

23 December 2022, 10:56 PM
The main topic of the closed part of the talks between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Joe Biden was the ways to end the war and its future (Photo:REUTERS/Leah Millis)

The main topic of the closed part of the talks between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Joe Biden was the ways to end the war and its future (Photo:REUTERS/Leah Millis)

In preparation for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the United States and his talks with U.S. President Joe Biden, the two sides discussed options for ending the war and providing Ukraine with more powerful types of weapons – something the White House is not quite ready to sing off on.

NV has compiled five key takeaways about the closed part of the Biden-Zelenskyy negotiations – apart from Washington’s official announcement of a $1.8 billion aid package for Ukraine, which includes one Patriot air defense battery.

1. Options for ending the war

According to U.S. newspaper The Washington Post, the Biden administration was eager “to discuss (Zelenskyy’s) thinking about diplomacy.

Video of day

“Where he is, and what he needs to make sure that Kyiv is in the strongest possible position so that we can accelerate the emergence of a negotiating table,” said a senior administration official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official reiterated the long-standing position of the Biden administration that “it’s not for us to describe what diplomacy should look like, when it should begin, or what its red lines should be,” as those are decisions for Ukraine to make.

“It was an opportunity for Biden and Zelenskyy to have a serious conversation about where are we going ... not to tell (Zelenskyy) what to do ..., (but) to make sure we’re aligned in overall objectives and understanding each other,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and current president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“Biden remains worried about not pushing too far, too fast, for fear of escalation. Zelenskyy wants to make clear that he needs continued support that, frankly, only the United States can provide.”

Washington Post reported there are three different models of what a negotiated end to the war could look like, each of which has adherents within the U.S. administration.

·       One, part of a peace plan Zelenskyy proposed last month, envisages Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory it currently occupies, including Crimea and areas of eastern Donbas it seized in 2014;

·       Another is withdrawal of Moscow’s forces to pre-Feb. 24 positions, meaning that Crimea and parts of Donbas remain under Russian control;

·       The third scenario includes Russian withdrawal from Donbas, but not Crimea.

According to the report, the latter two options Zelenskyy has made clear he will not support, insisting that peace can only come when Russian invaders have retreated from all occupied Ukrainian territory.

But during their face-to-face meeting on Dec. 21, Biden sought Zelenskyy’s “current thoughts about what that should look like,” the senior official said, while acknowledging that “it’s sort of an academic discussion at this point,” since there are no indications that Russia is interested in substantive negotiations.

White House National Security spokesman John Kirby told journalists that Biden and Zelenskyy had not spent a majority of their meeting going over each of Ukraine’s requests.

The discussion was not “driven by a list of additional capabilities. There was a much broader, deeper discussion about the situation in Ukraine and what the future portends,” he said.

2. Zelenskyy’s peace plan

Both at the joint press conference with Biden and during his speech at the U.S. Congress, Zelenskyy mentioned that he had discussed with the U.S. president the idea of holding a “peace summit” – the Global Peace Formula Summit. It should be based on a 10-point peace plan that Zelenskyy had outlined at the G-20 summit in Bali in November.

1. Nuclear facilities safety;

2. Food security;

3. Energy security;

4. Release of all POWs and deportees;

5. Restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity, respect for the UN Charter;

6. Complete withdrawal of all Russian troops from all of Ukraine;

7. Punishment for war crimes;

8. Environmental protections, stopping Russia's ecocide in Ukraine;

9. New security architecture and security guarantees for Ukraine;

10. Signing of a peace treaty.

During his visit to Washington, Zelenskyy expressed hope that the United States could take concrete steps to help fulfill his peace plan.

3. Discussion about tanks, jet fighters, and ATACMS for Ukraine

For Zelenskyy, the objective (of his visit to the United States) focused on appeals for more advanced weapons to enhance Ukraine’s ability to launch major offensives against entrenched Russian forces in the coming year.

“There was little indication that he succeeded, at least in the short term,” Washington Post reported.

Although the long-awaited Patriot missile defense system in Ukraine was included in the new U.S. aid package, officially announced during Zelenskyy’s visit, the White House is wary of providing other heavy weapons.

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On Dec. 9, Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak included German Leopard-2 tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, as well as U.S. Patriot missile defense systems, Abrams tanks, and ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) medium-range ballistic missiles in Ukraine’s “Christmas Wishlist.”

The White House still has doubts about providing the last two types of weapons.

According to The New York Times, when asked about the missiles at a joint news conference with Zelenskyy on Dec. 21, Biden cautioned that sending the arms could rupture NATO unity in support of Ukraine.

“They’re not looking to go to war with Russia,” he said about alliance members.

“They’re not looking for a third world war.”

NYT reported that Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington ended with promises of billions more in U.S. support for Ukraine, but not what he wanted most: U.S. main battle tanks, fighter jets, and medium-range precision missiles.

According to NYT, the Biden administration’s current no-go weapons fall into three basic categories with some overlap, administration officials say.

·       The first group includes weapons like ATACMS missiles, with a range of some 190 miles. The administration fears that if Ukraine gets in a bad enough bind, it could use the missiles to strike targets in Russia, prompting Russian dictator Vladimir Putin to widen the war beyond Ukraine’s borders;

·       The second category covers weapons like armed MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper combat drones, which proponents said would enable Ukraine to attack a broader range of targets – or scout them for other Ukrainian weapons to strike. But Pentagon officials have expressed concerns that if those drones are shot down or crash, Russia could recover them and exploit their advanced technology;

·       The third category covers weapons like Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets – some of the most advanced weapons in U.S. arsenal. Pentagon sources say Ukraine already has enough tanks and fighter jets from other countries. More importantly these systems take months of training to master and require complex maintenance, usually done by civilian contractors, who would be unable to work safely in Ukraine.

“(Zelenskyy’s) visit revealed the nuances that still remain in bilateral relations (between Ukraine and the United States),” says former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst.

“The decision to send Patriot systems is very important, but the United States, as before, doesn’t want to provide artillery, tanks, and longer-range fighter jets that would accelerate the victory of Ukraine.”

According to Herbst, a Ukrainian victory is in many ways in the interests of the United States, “because Vladimir Putin’s revisionist goals go beyond Ukraine and threaten NATO allies.”

4. “Decisions that the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Donbas and the South were waiting for”: possible non-public agreements between Kyiv and Washington

Many agreements between Ukraine and the United States reached amid Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington may remain behind the scenes, Nazar Prykhodko, an expert of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies, said in an interview with NV.

“If we go back to the list that was made public (the new U.S. aid package worth $1.85 billion), part of what the Americans will supply is classified there,” Prykhodko said.

“And there is something that was given to us secretly, something that we publicly asked for, but were publicly refused.”

According to the results of the visit, Zelenskyy also hinted at broader agreements compared to what was openly announced.

“This issue (the transfer of the Patriot missile defense system) has been resolved for Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said on Dec. 22.

“There is also financial support. There are other agreements – we will talk about them later.”

According to the president, the Ukrainian delegation is taking from the United States “to the Donbas, near Bakhmut, and to the south the decisions that our Defense Forces were waiting for.”

The White House also made signals about additional, undisclosed decisions having been made during the visit.

Summing up Zelenskyy’s visit to the United States, Podolyak expressed his belief that the Biden administration had made the final commitment regarding the need to defeat Russia.

“The United States has finally pinpointed the baseline,” he tweeted on Dec. 22, laying out four points of the current position of the White House:

1. Russia must lose;

2. No “territory in exchange for pseudo-peace” compromises;

3. Ukraine will receive all necessary military aid – as much as possible;

4. No one cares about Russia’s “talk to us” tantrums;

5. Support in the form of a new $45 billion aid package.

U.S. media write the most important objectives of Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington included the desire to convince the U.S. Congress to support the proposal for additional aid to Ukraine worth nearly $47 billion.

It was important, a senior administration official said, for Zelenskyy to use his considerable personal charisma in making the case to U.S. lawmakers “about how this really is a struggle for democracy,” The Washington Post reported.

An important step toward this objective took place the day after Zelenskyy’s Congress address: on Dec. 22, the U.S. Senate voted for the 2023 omnibus federal funding bill, worth $1.7 trillion, which provides, among other things, the allocation of almost $45 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Now the bill must be passed by the House of Representatives. After that, it will be sent to Biden, who is expected to sign it into law.

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